Hate speech and the mainstreaming of extremism

The First Amendment protects the media or web messenger, but the message can have murderous consequences.

Violent suggestion posed as commentary has long been part of the tactic known as "leaderless resistance" popularized by Ku Klux Klan leader Lewis Beam in the early 1990s and co-opted by groups ranging from the Aryan Nations to the Earth Liberation Front.

Since there's no direct incitement, the First Amendment protects the messenger. That the message is a suggestion, however, is often clear for anyone to see.

Such strategies have for a long time concerned those who study the politics of extremism in America.

But in the wake of several high-profile and deadly attacks by anti-abortion, anti-government, and anti-Jewish extremists in recent weeks and months, the focus of the debate is shifting from the darker corners of the Internet and shortwave radio to the halls of some of the country's most successful and popular media networks and web sites.

A new factor that is "causing us even more concern than in the past is the mainstreaming of the extremism by people who should know better," said James McElroy of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a speech given before a string of deadly, politically-motivated attacks this year, including the alleged shooting of a Holocaust Memorial Museum guard by white separatist James von Brunn on Wednesday.

Critics point to popular mainstream cable figures like Lou Dobbs on CNN, who once falsely claimed that illegal Mexican immigrants are spreading leprosy in the US, and Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly, who repeatedly referred to "Tiller the Baby Killer" when talking about Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, who was gunned down two weeks ago in his church.

Commentators say they are simply offering analysis based on facts. And the demagoguery flows both ways on the political airwaves, with constructive debate being replaced on both the left and the right with venom and invective.

Fox News' Dan Gainor tut-tutted the criticism in a column yesterday, calling it partisan hackery. "It's now the big theme in the media with the New York Times, ABC, CNN and lefty outlets like Salon joining a rising media chorus that conservatives are dangerous," Mr. Gainor writes.

To be sure, there have been far more violent times in America, long before the advent of the Internet and increasingly partisan media. What's more, there's another counter-argument: The First Amendment, especially in angry times, can be a peaceful vent for pent-up social frustrations – surely part of the Founders' intent.

Yet social observers like Thomas Palaima, professor of classics at the University of Texas in Austin, are discomfited – and conflicted – by the sheer growth and ratings power of hate-tinged speech. He specifically points out the reams of coded homophobia, racism, and sexism found in the comment sections of major national sports web sites.

"It's a moral swamp," he says in an interview. "After studying war and violence, I do not have a romantic idea about human nature. But historically almost all societies are based on redirecting individual desires and turning them into things that are social goods. I don't think by suppressing expression of these strong, violent emotions, hatreds, prejudices, that you do society a service. Yet I agree that somehow having them out there is also a problem."

Barring Canada-style hate speech regulations, which make it a crime to even snarkily critique people based on their race or creed, the US is unlikely to curb the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech for everyone.

But absence of legislation doesn't bar media firms and bloggers from taking a closer look at the effect of their stories, commentaries, and comment sections on viewers and readers.

And to an extent, that's happening. MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann said in the wake of Dr. Tiller's death that "we need to separate television from terrorism." Hate-filled e-mail from viewers caused Fox News commentator Shepard Smith last week to call out those who fill chat rooms and comment sections with "hate not based on fact."

"More and more it seems like people are taking the extra step and taking a gun out," he warned.

Indeed, even in the cantankerous, open forums of the US media, it is possible to go too far.

Last week, Connecticut blogger Harold Turner was arrested and charged with inciting violence against lawmakers by warning on his blog: "Obey the Constitution or die!" He was angry over a law that would give lay Roman Catholic parishioners more power over church finances.

Mr. Turner defended the post as "crude political hyperbole." He is to appear in court on June 22.

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